Monday, 13 June 2011


With the 50th anniversary of the Paris Massacre almost upon us, Rachid Bouchareb's Outside The Law (Hors la loi) takes on added significance. Inevitably, it will be compared with Pontecorvo's classic Battle of Algiers, but equally inevitably we need to realise that 45 years after that film there is little point in trying to repeat its brilliance, that in putting together a big-budget (for a French film, reputedly $25 million) film, Bouchareb is going to approach the issues within the context of a more mainstream entertainment. But having done just that, Bouchareb does not dodge issues.

He tells the story of three Algerian brothers, who have their home stolen from them by French colonists because they have no deeds--a story familiar today from Israel's appropriation of Palestinian farms. Their father is killed while police massacre demonstrators on VE day in 1945 in the town of Setif, to which the family has moved, in what is probably the film's most visceral and powerful sequence. The brothers take their separate paths: the eldest, Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) to the French army, and capture at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the studious Abelkadir (Sami Bouajila) to the revolution, and a French prison, and the youngest, Said (Jamel Debbouze) to a life of petty crime as a pimp in Paris, eventually graduating to owning a nightclub and managing a talented fighter, dubbed Kid Algiers.

In fact, Outside The Law comes closer to Jean-Pierre Melville's Army In The Shadows than to Pontecorvo, and in using many tropes from gangster movies resembles a politicised Warner Bros movie like The Roaring Twenties, or Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In America. That much of the film is familiar, if not predictable, from our gangster memory, slows it down somewhat. But it still caused a political outcry in France, in part because the French authorities are seen to be such villains, and in part because of it connotations to the current 'war' on terror and the situation of Moslems with France itself. Because we identify with the brothers, and thus their cause, and because we agree with the idea, if not always the realities, of liberation, it is inevitable that the French become the film's villains, and that in each situation they are portrayed in the worst light (think of British reaction to the Croke Park massacre as presented in Michael Collins for a parallel). But compare the English poster above with the French version, left, to get an idea of how much more seriously the characters appear, and thus the issues become.

What is most interesting in this portrayal, however, is where it seems to veer slightly from historical reality. The officer in charge of anti-terrorist activity, Colonel Faivre (Bernard Blancan) is presented as being immensely self-aware, not racist in the way the police are, and as a veteran of the Resistance. Historically, the police in charge of the repression of the FLN in France as the police turned out to be uniformly those who had collaborated energetically with the Nazis, and in effect were happy to substitute Algerians for Jews (see my previous post on this blog, on the novel Murder in Memoriam). Faivre, however, while fighting for the French empire, has, like Messaoud, been a prisoner of the Vietnamese, and has come to believe Ho Chi Minh's axiom, which is presented as revolutionary theory to Abelkadir in prison: repression works in favour of the revolution, and the more vicious the repression, the more self-defeating it becomes. Faivre understands this, and to him is given the film's final, prophetic line, which is shown to come true in a silent coda celebrating Algerian independence.

Bouchareb transcends his gangster-film set pieces in a number of other ways—by having police break up the wedding (with echoes of The Godfather), by having the dilemma of whether Kid Algiers should fight for the French title become a political issue (which needs to be resolved through violence), by having Said—the criminal—being the brother who wants to preserve his French life. And he benefits immensely from the talents of his three leads, whose interactions helped make his previous film, Days Of Glory, so successful. Debbouze, in a Cagneyesque role, steals the show—he's so imbued in the look of Thirties Hollywood, so almost cuddly, as to throw the film into another dimension. Bouajila's task is somewhat harder—he starts out almost as a Jeff Goldblum before morphing into Giancarlo Esposito, though I kept thinking of Jerzy Kosinski in Reds as the role model for the increasingly cold doctrinaire leader he becomes. Zem, whose solidity provides the anchor, has the biggest moment, the break-down scene with his mother. Without such strong leads, the film would dissolve into an action thriller, as it is always threatening to do, but because they play against each other so well, it assures that the personal and political stories stay connected and neither overpowers the other.

Given the recent 'Arab Spring' the anniversary of the Paris Massacre ought to be an opportunity to revisit what importance we give to independence, and what responsibilities remain for the colonial powers, not least in their own countries. There is an interesting sequence, in which DeGaulle goes to Algeria, to encourage a 'moderate' government, which celebrates Algerian oil coming to France. The parallels with our own world aren't hard to miss. And Ho's lessons on the futility of repression ring true more than half a century later. This is a film which gives new meaning to familiar materials, and transcends them powerfully.

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